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Since he slashed his way into the national spotlight in 2003 as an 18-year-old USC freshman, Reggie Bush has been a central figure on a BCS champion and a peripheral figure on a Super Bowl champion. He was popularly believed to have been drafted way too low at No. 2, then popularly believed to have been drafted way too high at No. 2. He has been a Heisman Trophy winner. He has been a Heisman Trophy forfeiter. He has been the boyfriend of Kim Kardashian.
One thing Bush has never been during the last eight turbulent years is an every-down—or even a most-downs—running back, but that is the Dolphins' plan for him now. They acquired the 26-year-old from the Saints in July for the liquidation price of a backup safety and an undisclosed draft pick. Their intention is to put an end to his jack-of-all-trades days and make him the primary replacement for the tandem of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Bush led the league with three punt return TDs in 2008, but his name does not appear anywhere on Miami's punt-returning depth chart. "He became a little bit of a sprinkle player in New Orleans, a situational guy, you put him in to suit your needs," says Dolphins coach Tony Sparano. "I think in Reggie's mind, and in ours, he can be more than that."
Bush's role was reduced to seasoning in New Orleans for several reasons. First, there were other talented backs there, such as Deuce McAllister and Pierre Thomas. Also, Bush, relatively slight for a running back at 6 feet and 203 pounds, proved susceptible to breaking down. He has missed a quarter of the NFL games in which he might have played, including half of last season, due to injuries to his ankle, knee and leg. And he hasn't been particularly explosive as a rusher, gaining 4.0 yards per carry. His receptions have also declined every year, from 88 as a rookie to 34 in 2010.
Still, Miami's hope is that Bush's health holds up and that his production will improve with regular carries, which might relieve him of an all-or-nothing urge when he finds the ball in his hands. "It's an opportunity for me to kind of prove a lot of the doubters wrong, that I can be that every-down back, or everything else that people may doubt about me," Bush says. "The answer's going to come pretty fast." Bush's new teammates believe he will. "He's got that burst, that x factor, that playmaking ability," says linebacker Cameron Wake. "You think you've got him bottled up, and all of a sudden he's out of there."
"He obviously has critics, people who don't think he can run the ball inside the tackles," says quarterback Chad Henne. "I think he's going to prove that he can."
Henne, three seasons and 27 starts into his career, knows of critics. At camp fans greeted him with chants of We want Orton!—a reference to Kyle Orton, who was trade bait in Denver at the time. It should be noted that in Orton's first three seasons in which he got on the field, as a Bear, he threw 30 touchdowns to Henne's 27, had 27 interceptions to Henne's 33, completed 55.3% of his passes to Henne's 61.1% and averaged 5.8 yards per attempt to Henne's 6.6. "The quarterback is the most critiqued player out there," says Henne. "It doesn't get to me. But at the same time you obviously want the support of your fans in your hometown."
Henne had better make significant improvement, as did Orton in his third full season, because he and Bush are the clear swing factors on a team whose fortunes are difficult to fathom. Miami's defense is largely lacking in star power, though franchise sacks leader Jason Taylor returns after a year with the Jets. Still, the unit should again be a quiet strength, as it was last season, when it ranked sixth overall. If Henne and Bush make good on their promise, the Dolphins could, even in a tough division, challenge for a wild-card spot.
If, however, Sparano is forced to turn to Matt Moore (a 55.6 passer rating with the Panthers last year) and Daniel Thomas (a bulky second-round running back out of Kansas State), the result should be closer to that of 2007, when the Dolphins were a Week 15 overtime victory from going winless. Then Bush, Henne and Sparano, too, might not get another opportunity to put things together, at least not in Miami.
WITH 2010 STATS